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“What did you steal!?”

The woman with her hand in my bag immediately took two steps back and put her hands up to show they were empty.

The begging and moaning were gone, replaced by a look of wary apprehension as I took another step toward her.  “What did you steal?” I asked again angrily looking her dead in the eye.

The fake baby was dangling with its mouth still attached to her bare breast.  Her hands were up showing they were empty … it was the left hand that was supposedly holding the baby that had been groping in my bag as she grabbed my arm with her right hand and pressed in close.

I had been wandering the streets of Bologna in the university area – a great area for photos.  The bag was open because I kept grabbing my camera.

This woman spotted me coming down the sidewalk and for whatever reason decided I was an easy mark.  I saw her and knew she was trouble … but she came right for me begging.  I said “No” – “No” politely when she asked for money.

Rather than walking away, she crowded in and grabbed my arm with her right hand.

I backed away and said NO! NO!  loudly to attract attention.  They usually hate drawing broad attention and this is generally sufficient to back them off.  But not her. She stared me in the eye, her breast was bare with a realistic-looking baby attached to the nipple (quite effective at drawing your eye and attention as she intended).  The left hand that was presumably holding that baby was going for my bag, hidden by her shawl.

I wrenched my arm out of hers, glanced down at my open bag and asked her loudly, “What did you steal?”  This got her attention and she stepped back and put her hands up to show they were empty.  I took two steps towards her … and assertively asked again … “What did you steal?”.

Now the tables were turned.  She was exposed and wary.

I glanced in my bag quickly and everything was still there.

People had noticed the co-motion on the busy street in Bologna.  A man walked by and asked if I was OK and then said something to the woman who had been called out as a thief – I heard part of it and it was essentially that all tourists aren’t stupid.  A woman walked by and asked if she had taken anything and said to be careful.

This begging woman was the stereotypical pick-pocket.  Dressed in shabby loose clothes and a shawl to hide her hands, begging with a baby to draw attention, she was easy to spot as trouble.  I spotted her, but did not do a good job avoiding her, though she was uncommonly aggressive in pursuing me.

And if I can spot them, then so can many of the hundreds of others who walked by her each hour on that busy street as she begged and looked for victims.  I think many people must have realized why she was there.  I wondered if they would have said anything if I hadn’t created a scene.  Or intervened if they had seen her successfully stealing from me as I was oblivious.

I wonder if they even noticed her at all – begging and looking for opportunities to steal.

Maybe they choose not to see … particularly since these thieves typically target visitors and not locals.  Most of us are guilty of choosing not to see when it is convenient.

Afterwards I ducked into an open doorway and made sure my money was securely down the front of my pants. That is the best place for it when you are walking around in crowded areas when you are traveling – it’s pretty hard for a pick-pocket to get their hand down there without your noticing.

Other basics to being safe while traveling alone:  Take what you need for the day with you, and lock the rest in the hotel safe.  Don’t look rich or wear flashy valuables or jewelry.  Don’t look lost, even if you are clueless.  Be aware of what and who is around you. Be wary of anyone who approaches you speaking perfectly English at a tourist area … sadly most likely they are up to no good.  Don’t flash your money or anything that looks valuable.  Don’t travel with anything you’d be heartbroken to lose.  Don’t get drunk and stupid.

After I went on with my day, but it took time for the adrenaline to die back.

I wondered if I should have reported her to the police, though since she didn’t succeed this would have been difficult.  I wish I had taken her photo so I could have plastered it up as a warning for other travelers – so if they did not know to be wary of this scheme they could learn.  Plus taking her photo would have made her paranoid and perhaps curtailed her thievery for a short time.

But I just moved on.  And I have no doubt she’s still out there stealing and begging from the next unsuspecting victim.

Despite today I still feel safe traveling alone.  Violent crime here is rare.  Petty theft is a problem, but can generally be avoided with smart precautions.  Usually, but not always.  And while I exercise common-sense precautions, I refuse to be afraid and let fear limit my choices.  I will go where I want and exercise the precautions that make sense.  You can’t control everything, but you can limit exposure to obvious risks.

But I resent that her act detracted from an otherwise great day roaming this vibrant city.

And I can still feel her hand gripping my arm hours later.

Leigh Pate
Leigh Pate is a writer, former political consultant and two time cancer patient and cancer research advocate living in Seattle, WA